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Prof Receives NSF Grant for Supercomputer
August 30 , 2007

Joel Adams sits by supercomputer OhmA Calvin College computer science professor has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to build a supercomputer. The new computer, funded through $205,000 from the NSF Major Research Instrument program will replace OHM —the supercomputer Calvin computer science professorsand students built six years ago with money from the same source.

“As desktop computers get faster and faster, our supercomputer is staying the same speed. It’s still useful for teaching, but less and less useful for research,” says Calvin professor Joel Adams about OHM.

A supercomputer, Adams explains, is not one computer but a cluster of computers linked through a network that enables them to function as a whole. The productivity of such a system is possible because each component of a supercomputer-each individual computer-is able to work on a different piece of a complex problem.

“Imagine that your problem is eating one of those giant 18-slice pizzas, and that you’re working on this problem alone,” Adams posits. “How long is it going to take you to eat all 18 slices by yourself? Whereas, if you have 17 friends over and all of you take on the problem of eating that pizza, it will be gone in a minute or two.”

The original OHM measuring seven feet high, six feet wide and two feet deep, was constructed from 18 computers. It was used for a range of research purposes in several disciplines: everything from physics professor Stan Haan’s work in photo ionization to chemistry professor Roger DeKock’s molecular modeling to physics professor Paul Harper’s modeling of the transport mechanism in lipid proteins.

The new OHM will add at least two feet in overall length and be built from at least 32 computers, each containing two CPUs, each with dual or even quadruple processing elements called “cores.”

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This past winter Calvin professor Joel Adams and then Calvin senior Tim Brom built Microwulf, a portable supercomputer measuring a mere 11 inches by 12 inches by 17 inches. Microwulf, at 26.25 gigaflops peak performance, is more than twice as fast as the original OHM and cost less than $2,500 to construct, becoming the most cost-efficient supercomputer anywhere that Adams knows of. This fall Adams plans to demonstrate Microwulf’s capabilities at high schools and professional conferences. Read more about Microwulf.

Says Adams: “If the new OHM has 128 cores, it should be about 40 times as fast as the original; if is has 256 cores, it will be about 80 times as fast. If we buy more than 32 computers, it could be even faster. We won’t know until we build it."

Like its predecessor, the new OHM will log a lot of research hours.

Already, two more Calvin professors, one working in quantum physics and one simulating electrical systems aboard ships are planning to crunch research numbers with OHM II.

Students will help to build the second edition of OHM, which is a valuable learning experience, Adams says.

The supercomputer will also train the students who work with it in parallel thinking, he adds, a crucial approach to programming in this era of the computer age, as multiple cores become standard equipment on the average computer.

“We’ll be able to use this supercomputer for several years,” Adams says. “You have to build for the future."

~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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